In my professional work, I talk with folks about a lot of different issues.
Grief, addiction, anxiety, depression, trauma. You name it. I’ve counseled people through custody disputes, break ups, divorces and new relationships. I’ve seen tears of joy over a pregnancy after a lengthy battle with infertility, and tears of sorrow at the loss of a loved one. My clipboard has held the notes of injuries, defeats, survival and fear. Clients struggling with phobias, obsessive cleaning, infidelity and money mismanagement have all sat in the same seat as someone who needed a sounding board for choosing the right vacation spot south of the border, or to vent about the contractors for their million dollar home reno.
Therapy can be the great equalizer. All walks of life, and all demographics end up sharing their life’s story with me in the same room, sometimes uttering the same words without even realizing how connected they all are.
I’ve had patients who loved me, and have told me I’ve changed their lives. The connection was strong and easy, the depth of our therapeutic relationship making it simple to be in sync and I became a person they trusted and listened to. Sometimes the only person they trusted in their whole life. I was a replacement figure, role modeling how to set boundaries, how to open up, how to relate to someone in a safe way without surrendering myself. It isn’t always that easy, but the reward is staggering.
I’ve also had some who hated me and weren’t afraid to let me know that. Who walked out angry because I challenged their preconceived notions, because I wanted them to break free from unhelpful behaviour. Because I held up a metaphorical mirror and asked them to do better. To expect more from themselves. To see how their own actions were impacting themselves and those around them.
Some aren’t ready for that.
I’ve built some amazing therapeutic relationships with people in my office, sharing tears together and holding space in a way that is both sacred and heart-breaking. I am blessed and burdened with the responsibility of seeing people often at their worst. And it’s my duty and my pleasure to let them know that it’s OK. All of it. The anger, the sadness, the pain, the uncertainty, and all the messy, snotty, nose-blowing, sobbing release. In fact, I pride myself on being able to foster a space where the strongest may weep, sometimes even shocked by their own tears. I can’t count the amount of people who have tearfully told me they aren’t usually like that, or that they promised themselves they wouldn’t cry today.
My most common response is ‘Don’t worry. It’s my super power to make people cry.’
I use the tongue-in-cheek joke to stave off the discomfort of showing our emotions, and that immediate reaction we seem to have that forces us to apologize when the tears start to fall. But in reality, it’s the permission we give ourselves when we step over the threshold into a room where we can be vulnerable. Where the expectation is to bare our souls and have someone there to catch us and then somehow help it all make sense.
Maybe that’s my super power.
But while I may be the one with the degrees on the wall and the pad and paper scribbling away my notes and observations, I’m always acutely aware that I’m not always the teacher in that room. That the therapeutic relationship goes both ways. I often end up learning just as much from them as they learn from me, and I can’t help but walk away amazed by the wisdom someone can gleam from the darkest days in their life.
Sometimes, I hear exactly what I need to as well.
I was reminded of this recently when I made a particularly difficult decision and began a very intense journey.
Some of you may be aware that I am now branching off into private practice part time, while still maintaining my current full-time position. This has been a niggling thought at the back of my mind for nearly a year now, but I’ve always convinced myself it wasn’t for me. Until a small seed was planted that I couldn’t quite shake off and it evidently grew roots while I wasn’t looking.
I attended a very in depth training last year that tested the very boundaries of what I thought being a counselor and therapist could mean, and I was surrounded by those who smiled politely at my naivete when I claimed I could never consider branching out on my own. Private practice wasn’t for me. Too much work. Too much uncertainty. I answered countless inquiries about my future and where I saw myself, stating I was quite content where I was at. And I am. I love my co-workers, the environment of where I work. I get to do what I love with support and freedom. I’ve been extremely fortunate.
But once you start thinking about something, it’s hard to stop. I think I may even owe someone from that conference money, because they off-handedly joked they bet by the same time next year, I’d sing a different tune.
I began to consider it more seriously as the days went on and balancing that ever present struggle of family and work and day care began to take a toll on me and my family. What was once a day dream started to become a wish. I spent more time thinking about it, wondering if it was really such an outlandish idea after all.
And then, in a day filled with back to back clients, every single one from 9 AM straight through till 4 PM talked about the idea of risk. Of leaping without knowing if there’s anything to catch you at the bottom. How they had suffered by letting anxiety, society, themselves, other people in their life tell them that they couldn’t achieve what they dreamed – and they believed them. And the only way they had broken free from that, was to take the risk and jump. Not knowing if they’d make it, not knowing if they could follow through, but feeling more themselves for trying than they had in years.
I sat there for the entire day, celebrating these victories with them and highlighting the need to challenge our self-made barriers and to dream better for ourselves, all the while feeling like a hypocrite. Here I was, smiling at these brave souls, reflecting with them on the benefits of pushing and setting goals, even without the guarantee of victory, when I was too cowardly to even research a potential change in my life I’d been thinking about for nearly 10 months.
Starting a private practice is terrifying to me.
Not the therapy itself – a decade in the field and my typical interest in continuing to educate myself makes me pretty confident in handling that side of the equation. It’s the business part that has me shaking in my boots.
I’ve had the pleasure of watching my entrepreneur friend balancing her finances in a way that boggled my mind for many years. We’ve known each other since childhood, going our separate ways and somehow re-entering each other’s orbit and I’m forever grateful for that meeting of chance that rekindled a friendship I’d be lost without. It was with her support, and the encouragement of many other important people in my life, that I felt able to make this step. But I’ll be the first person to say that what she has created for herself, scares the piss right out of me.
I told her with a head shake how I could never imagine myself doing that. What she did. How she balanced running her own business, her family, the uncertainty of finances. I’m hardly trustworthy with a credit card on a good day, and you can judge my emotional state by the amount of Amazon boxes on my front step. How could I ever manage a business plan and taxes and everything else that comes with it?
But she was willing to hear my worries, my concerns, to offer me encouragement and a cheerleading squad and her boundless knowledge. She even admitted to having to reign herself in, wanting so desperately to see me succeed, but not wanting to infringe of my own independence in doing this venture the way I wanted to.
And she’s not the only one. I’ve had all sorts of support so far, from family and friends, coworkers and colleagues near and far. I’ve been given boundless tutelage and care, and even some hefty doses of reality to temper my emotional urges to just run sprinting out of the gate (I’m not always known for great impulse control). There’s been blood, sweat and tears poured into this already but it’s me who will have to take that final leap. I will be making the jump and learning to do something that’s frightening and exciting in equal measure.
I’m not sure without those particular clients sharing their lives with me if I had been so bold as to start this journey. I’m not sure without the endless love and earnest devotion I have in my social circle if I would be this brave. But I am blessed to be surrounded by some of the very best and brightest people this world has to offer, both personally and professionally. Who inspire me to do more, to be more, to reach for things I thought outside of my grasp. To learn not to be caged in by what I think I can do and instead dream about what I COULD do with the right plan.
As a therapist, being open to doing our own work is important. Invaluable even. We must be able to face our own struggles, and be receptive to learning more about ourselves through this process than we typically expect. Moving forward, I think I’ll always see that day with those 6 clients as being a wake up call. It was what I needed to hear, it was the inspiration necessary to take me to the next step in my own professional development, and it again reminded me of the power of this work and the people we help. There is no firm line between client and professional in therapy; there is a sinuous give and take of ideas and energy that should help shape both into better versions of themselves. When we use ourselves – our thoughts, or empathy, our hearts – in the work we do with our clients, you always get something back in return.
So thank you, to all the people who’ve kick started this journey and helped me make the jump. I’m looking forward to seeing where I land.